All new nonsense 

24 May 2004

If you slap the words “ALL NEW” all over everything, does this mean that there’s such a things as “PART NEW”? And, anyway, asks Carl Ellis, isn’t this giving to much away about bad scheduling?

Another year and another Sky One logo is unleashed upon the Great British public.

Well, almost. Yes, there is a new Sky One logo, but based on the turnover of the last thirteen years, it should be, oh, at least summer 2003 before this one is replaced.

To accompany the new logo, Sky One also has a series of idents and break bumpers that reflect many of its most popular imported series. Sky One has been doing this sort of thing for several years, and this year there’s an Enterprise-themed one for the latest “Star Trek” spin-off, one with a gun hidden in a lipstick for “Alias”, one with a sword for “Buffy,” and so on.

All of these are designed to reflect the channel’s tagline that it is the best place to catch “the best of the US first”, but if you’re expecting to watch them in their intended state, then you’re out of luck, I’m afraid.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect about Sky One its refusal to show any of its imports in 16:9 format. It attempts to justify this by claiming that “widescreen viewers” are outnumbered 3:1, so there’s no point in launching dedicated widescreen channels until this changes.

Sky might as well say that they simply can’t be bothered because in deciding to ignore the facts this is what their answer amounts to.

The most obvious fact about the number of widescreen viewers is that it’s unlikely to increase unless the amount of programming encourages people to buy widescreen sets.

Sky’s argument could just as easily be applied to previous occasions when broadcasters have relied on viewers trading up their equipment – such as a Band III aerial, UHF, colour or even a satellite dish.

Yet as history shows us, some broadcasters were prepared to provide viewers with reasons to upgrade their equipment. As the leading multichannel station, many viewers might expect Sky One to be leading the way on this front, instead of having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the widescreen era.

Secondly, just because I would like Sky One to broadcast those shows made in widescreen in that format doesn’t mean I’m expecting them to launch a dedicated widescreen channel.

As usual, Sky seem to be deliberately missing the point in order to justify their actions – or lack of them.

Finally, there’s one obvious solution for those viewers who don’t like to see widescreen programming on their 4:3 set: simply set up your digibox according and let those of us who wish to see the whole picture do so.

But even if Sky One was willing to go down the widescreen route, its general presentation policies are annoying enough to anyone who actually cares about what they’re watching.

Like most digital channels, Sky One has employed an on-screen bug for the last few years. Other writers have already pointed out that in an age where Electronic Programme Guides are standard, these are unnecessary, so there’s no need to repeat them there.

However, recently Sky One has supplemented this with even more on-screen clutter. For several days prior to the launch of the latest “Star Trek” series we were constantly reminded of the start date of “Enterprise” through a bug in the top-right of the screen.

And now that it and many of Sky One’s other imports have started their new seasons, we have the equally unnecessary addition of the words “ALL NEW” beneath the Sky One logo.

Anyone who’s watched US television will know that episodes are often promoted in this way and yes, some networks will briefly display the words alongside the series’ name after each commercial break.

The differences between this and what Sky is currently doing are two-fold. Firstly, the “all new” graphic is displayed briefly, whereas Sky feels it is necessary to keep it on-screen throughout the entire programme.

The graphic telling us that a programme has subtitles is only displayed for a few seconds at the start, so why can’t the same be done with this one as well?

Most importantly, promoting episodes as “all new” is important in the States, where most series will run a season of 22 new episodes over eight or nine months.

Sky One has previously experimented with this sort of scheduling, but found that viewers preferred to see a complete run of new episodes instead (“The Simpsons” is the only real exception to this rule). Therefore once a new season is underway – usually in the first couple of weeks of January – ALL episodes are new, so Sky must have a pretty low opinion of its viewers if it thinks they must be constantly reminded of this fact.

Even worse, by the end of the first week of the new bug, the channel had already managed to tag a 10-year-old episode of “The Simpsons” as new, while the bug was absent from the brand new episode which followed.

Another recent development on Sky One is its interactive service, which is helpfully promoted through a red blob in the top-right of the screen. I, for one, remain sceptical about the usefulness of many interactive services, but Sky One’s in particular seems little more than an attempt to screw yet more cash out of viewers than a desire to provide any useful content.

And with an emphasis on polls, betting and shopping it’s completely useless for those of us who disconnected the phone line once our 12-month minimum contact was up.

Even more annoying is Sky’s insistence on triggering the red blob after each commercial break, forcing viewers to constantly press the back up key to remove it. Anyone recording a programme unattended has no way of removing the blob beforehand and so must simply put up with it blighting his or her recording.

(Actually, there is a workaround solution to this programme: simply add Sky One manually and watch it through the Other Channels menu. Of course, this then bypasses the EPG, which Sky has claimed is one of digital television’s advantages over analogue!)

Other areas of Sky One’s presentation display a similar lack of thought. At the end of the final break in a programme, the channel now shows a “now, next and later” menu.

Okay, so this effectively duplicates the EPG, but at least it avoids viewers having to press the info button to bring up these details. But in an hour-long programme, this break can be little more than five minutes from the end of the programme, yet Sky still seeks to cram two more promotional tools in before the programme is over.

As with many channels it now employs End Credit Promos where the credits are squeezed into one half of the screen, allowing a trailer to run in the other half. Following this, Sky One’s pre-recorded continuity announcer will pop up, often to repeat what we’ve just been told in her own inimitable style.

Many viewers dislike ECPs at the best of time, but on Sky One they are often redundant. For example, anyone planning to watch “Angel” once “Buffy” has finished doesn’t need an ECP to encourage them to stick around, they’ll be doing it anyway.

Quite possibly many of them are recording the programme anyway, so they’re unlikely to start channel surfing the moment the credits start up.

What makes all of this particularly important is Sky One’s status as one of the leading cable/satellite channels.

Two-thirds of the country has yet to go digital and they’re unlikely to do so when one of the biggest and most popular multichannel stations put tacky self-promotion before the few good programmes that it does have.

A few years ago, Sky told its viewers, “you love TV, we love TV too.” Well Sky, I love TV, how about you – or do you just love making money out of it?

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